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Bye, bye local legend: Don McLean refutes tale of song's origin

2011-11-26T22:25:00Z 2012-07-25T10:26:52Z Bye, bye local legend: Don McLean refutes tale of song's originTHOMAS DIMOPOULOS - tdimopoulos@poststar.com Glens Falls Post-Star

On Nov. 27, 1971, Don McLean's eight-minute, 27-second anthem about the day the music died first broke through the top 100 Billboard chart.

Six weeks later, "American Pie" ascended to the top spot in the nation, spending the next month at the No. 1 position, and carving out a place in pop music history and Saratoga Springs legacy.

McLean was one of Caffe Lena's own prodigies, performing regularly at the little second-floor coffeehouse on Phila Street.

"Lena was my good friend and she was wonderful to me in the '60s when I had no money. She was always out to help me and everybody else for that matter," McLean said earlier this week.

Shortly after graduating from Iona College in 1968, the singer-songwriter turned down a scholarship to Columbia University Graduate School in favor of becoming resident singer at Caffe Lena.

"He was known around the coffeehouses at the time, but that was pretty much all," recalled Jim Staley, who worked as a doorman at the Tin & Lint in 1970 and is the bar's current owner.

Inside the Caroline Street bar, the wood booths are inscribed with the initials of one-time patrons who have passed through its doors during the past 40 years. Its most notable feature is a gold-faced plaque, fading with age, which resides over one of the middle tables and reads: "American Pie, written by Don McLean, summer 1970."

"People come in here and take pictures with it," Staley said, pointing to the plaque and the table where stories of the night that McLean penned the pop opus are nearly as legendary as the song itself.

"An entire city of people have put themselves in there at the time. It must have been some busy night," said city resident Al McKenny, who worked with many area musicians at Caffe Lena for the past four decades, but who was not at the Tin & Lint on that infamous night.

Hud Armstrong, a longtime city resident, recalled the night, but said the story has changed through the years.

In most re-tellings, McLean was in town for a performance at Caffe Lena and had wandered into the Tin & Lint, where he spent the night alternately drinking and scribbling phrases like "American Pie" and "drove my Chevy to a levy" on a series of bar napkins, which were forgotten about and abandoned during the course of the evening, but rescued by one of the workers at the Tin & Lint that night.

"I heard what he left behind was a notebook," Armstrong said. "What was in the notebook? I have no idea."

Michael Taub, a Vermont-based optometrist, spent several years helping out at Caffe Lena during his high school years in the late 1960s and early '70s.

In 2005, he returned to the city where he was raised and spent time reminiscing with musician Bruce "Utah" Phillips.

"Back in the day, people used to drink a lot. What Bruce told me about that night was that Don was playing a gig at the cafe and went to the Tin & Lint after the show," Taub recalled.

In the Phillips version, McLean either "fell asleep" or "passed out," Taub said, leaving a slew of bar napkins scribbled with lyrics splayed across the table, which Phillips gathered for safekeeping and later returned to McLean.

"He was pretty loaded," said Staley, who recalled McLean's scribbled bar napkins being left behind inside the tavern where he worked.

"The next day he came back and asked if we had his notes. If the kid working the tables at the time didn't hold on to them, who knows, he may have forgotten all about it," said Staley, depicting a world where "American Pie" would have never been heard.

The tavern owner insists that although the song may have been completed elsewhere later, it was first scripted inside the Tin & Lint.

The story of the song's origins has moved into the pages of commercial publications as well as cyberspace.

Frommer's travel guide points to the American pop anthem being written by McLean in the city on a "cocktail napkin," and the county chamber of commerce website cites the city as the location where the song was written and Caffe Lena as the venue where it was performed for the first time.

"It's folklore, but I guess there's something to be said for misinformation," McKenny said.

McLean has heard the stories for the past 40 years.

"Was the song written in Saratoga Springs? The answer is no. The song was written in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania," McLean said.

He also clarified that the first time the song was performed on stage was not at Caffe Lena, but at Temple University, where he was billed to perform with Laura Nyro.

"I have heard this for years. I guess you can't really control these things, but these are both not true. That is from the horse's mouth that's exactly what happened," McLean said.

"Unfortunately Caffe Lena or Saratoga Springs - neither of those places can lay claim to anything with regard to ‘American Pie.' "

Chapter two: L'Affaire a la mode

An American pie of a more flavor-filled palatability is said to have been invented in southern Washington County in the late 19th century.

Charles Townsend, a resident of Main Street, Cambridge, frequented the restaurant inside the Cambridge Hotel in the 1890s.

The then-new hotel provided lodging in its 40 guest rooms and dining to travelers making a stop-over on the Delaware and Hudson Railroad Line, which ran from Albany to Saratoga, then east through Washington County to Rutland, Vt.

Townsend, a concert pianist and music teacher, concluded his day's meal in Cambridge with ice cream-topped apple pie, which a fellow diner nicknamed "pie a la mode."

While visiting Delmonico's restaurant in Manhattan, Townsend, who died in 1936 at the age of 87 at Mary McClellan Hospital in Cambridge, requested the dessert at the famed restaurant.

He was met with blank stares by the waiters at the restaurant, which prided itself as one of the most prominent culinary establishments in the country.

"Call the manager at once. I demand as good service here as I get in Cambridge," Townsend reportedly said, as overheard by a newspaperman from the New York Sun who was seated at a nearby table taking notes for a story that would appear in the publication the next day.

The staff at the restaurant scrambled to recreate the dessert served in Cambridge, which subsequently became a standard menu item at restaurants across the country.

Chapter three: Mr. Cooper's Cave

The historical banners fly atop poles in the village of South Glens Falls, bearing a slogan from the popular 19th century novel, "The Last of the Mohicans."

Beneath the Cooper's Cave Bridge, which connects the village with the city of Glens Falls, sits the cave immortalized by James Fenimore Cooper in his work of historical fiction.

"My understanding is Cooper came through this area in the early 1820s and apparently something moved him," said Bill Hayes, village trustee, and the village's self-professed unofficial historian.

"The book is fiction, but it's based on some historic fact. This was a great crossing place on the Hudson River and I guess using his imagination that's how he developed it," Hayes said. "Cooper took license with some of the people. Some of the things actually happened."

While Cooper created characters for their literary impact, the cave mentioned in the novel is authentic and was visited by the author in 1824. Two years later, "The Last of the Mohicans" was published.

Cooper completed the manuscript living in New York City, and while afflicted with a serious and threatening illness.

Cooper paid little attention to historical accuracy, according to James Austin Holden, who presented his historical work, "The Last of the Mohicans, Cooper's Historical Inventions, and his Cave" at a meeting of the New York State Historical Association, in Cooperstown in 1916.

"The work was rapidly composed and published early in January 1826, substantially as it now is, to meet with an unqualified popularity, which has continued even to this day," Holden said.

The undying popularity of the book has lasted for nearly two centuries and has been the focus of multiple TV mini-series and a popular 1992 film.

"Cooper has handled his material with skill and considerable fidelity, and has affixed to the river at Glens Falls and the cave an undying fame, so that for nearly a century it has been a visiting place for European and American travelers," said Holden, long before the dawn of the age of television.

Many years later, Cooper's Cave remains a popular tourist attraction and is open annually from late May through the end of October.

Hayes, now 73, grew up in the region in the 1940s and remembers going down to the caves as a young boy.

"We always knew something about it as kids. We used to go there all the time," Hayes said.

"It was completely accessible until 1961. That's when they took the spiral staircase down," said Hayes, the keeper of the keys who unlocks the gates for all who enter.

Today, elementary school students from across the region visit the cave on school-sponsored field trips.

"They come down and I open the museum for them. They walk the riverfront and come to the museum and go to the cave," Hayes said. "They get a real exposure to it."

Chapter four: The curious case of ‘The Raven'

While touring the upstate region, Cooper also paid a visit to the popular Saratoga retreat owned by Jacobus Barhyte, an American Revolution soldier who in 1784 purchased the land that is currently dissected by the Northway's Exit 14.

Barhyte's estate boasted pretty trout streams and a popular tavern. A short list of visiting dignitaries includes James Fenimore Cooper, Andrew Jackson, Washington Irving and Edgar Allan Poe, according to one often-recited story.

Poe is said to have made the journey to the estate during the summers of 1842 and 1843, when he crafted an early draft of his poem, "The Raven," while pacing alongside the ponds on the grounds of what is the present-day Yaddo artists colony.

James Barhyte, Jacobus' 12-year-old grandson, recounted Poe's visit to educator and clergyman William Griffis, who served as pastor at a church in Schenectady where as an adult, James Barhyte was a congregation member.

Barhyte told Griffis of Poe's visit, how the poet paced among the still ponds, reciting his verse aloud.

"The silence was broken by the deep echo of ‘nevermore.' The syllable rolled over the pond and came back in echo at regular intervals," Griffis recounted in a story published in the New York Home Journal in 1884, more than 40 years after Poe's supposed visit took place. A second version was published in the New York Times Book Review in 1924.

The poet with the gloomy disposition apparently had a revelation that summer day in 1842 or 1843, as he walked across the Barhyte estate, repeating his newly scripted phrase.

‘ "I have it,' he cried. ‘Just the thing that will make the very stanza I need to complete the poem,'" Griffis recounted.

"The Raven" was published in 1845.

The story of Poe's visit to Saratoga has been challenged by scholars who argue that it is unlikely Poe would have abandoned his wife - who was fighting a losing battle with tuberculosis - and raised the funds to make a visit to the resort town of Saratoga.

Griffis' story has been passed down through the decades and has taken on a poetic life of its own.

Poe's voice was silenced with his death in 1849, but the Don McLean story has yet to be completed. The singer-songwriter continues to tour the stages of the world and issue recordings of his work. He very much still has his voice.

"It makes you wonder about history," McLean said, regarding the tales of the origins of "American Pie" that have circulated for the past 40 years.

"If I can't stop little things about a song I wrote that are incorrect, how can anyone believe history in general?"

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(7) Comments

  1. Muz i Belka
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    Muz i Belka - December 05, 2011 9:34 am
    Oh, really, who cares what this washed up has been has to say. He wrote the deathleess lyrics "drove the Chevy to the Levee/but the Levee was dry" on some bar napkin in Philadelphia fifty years ago instead of Saratoga Springs?

    What a newsflash! Glad that's been corrected.
  2. Candide
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    Candide - December 02, 2011 11:56 pm
    On his best day, Mark Twain couldn't have carried Cooper's ink well.
  3. Sceptical Mass
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    Sceptical Mass - November 29, 2011 6:39 am
    For a real treat read Mark Twian's critique of James Fenimore Cooper's works. Scathing, and brutally honest.

    You never know, considering the origin of American Pie, alcohol does funny things to memory, and it could have been inspired and started in Saratoga and then been penned in full in Philly.
  4. scooter
    Report Abuse
    scooter - November 28, 2011 2:33 pm
    adkkman said: "What about Sammy Hagaars I can't drive 55? He's always said he wrote that on the Northway going to Lake Placid."

    From the horse's mouth: ""I was vacationing in Africa in 1983, and I came back through London to New York and I had a place in Lake Placid," he says. "If you can imagine going from Nairobi to London, changing planes to New York, New York, to Albany, and then get in a rent-a-car and drive two and a half hours to Lake Placid - this was 24 hours of travel. I was burnt. I was in a cranky mood and at two o'clock in the morning, I got pulled over for going 62 miles an hour on a four-lane road. I said, 'Ah, man, come on, you've got to be kidding.'"

    Read more: http://www.motortrend.com/features/auto_news/2008/112_0807_van_halen_sammy_hagar_celeb_drive/viewall.html#ixzz1f1wtpu7M

  5. Spiney Norman
    Report Abuse
    Spiney Norman - November 28, 2011 12:53 pm
    Wow, adkkman, your comment (if accurate) just blew me away ! I distinctly recall the 1st time I heard that song - I was heading downstate on the ANW. An hour into the trip I was feeling very frustrated 'cause 55 felt like 30 on that 4 lane expanse. I started toying with my cruise control, inching it up a little at a time thinking "55 is crazy, I can't take this".Coincidentally, this new song comes on the radio - Haggers lament. I remember banging on the dash to the beat and yelling "Yes, exactly dude ... " (now rationalizing doing 62 - wondering if a tape of the song might help me in traffic court ?). Your comment just bumped 'coincidental' to 'amazingly coincidental'.
    The only other thing that could have made it 'Twilight Zone' coincidental is if I had been heading north to Placid instead. No doubt thousands of us ANW travelers felt the same back in those days, just none of us thought to put it down in song. And I never would have guessed it was ANW inspired. Thanks !!
  6. adkkman
    Report Abuse
    adkkman - November 27, 2011 11:58 am
    What about Sammy Hagaars I can't drive 55? He's always said he wrote that on the Northway going to Lake Placid.
  7. Magnum
    Report Abuse
    Magnum - November 27, 2011 12:10 am
    An excellent piece I love ir


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